17 January, 2009

The Hammersmith & City Line

Overlooked and underused. The first by me, the second by everyone.

Welcome to the Hammersmith and City, apparently the next-to-least used line on the entire Underground. That come as no great surprise. It doesn't run to and from anywhere spectacular. It has a horrible colour on the map. Most of the line doubles up other services. The only bit that's independent links two places, Hammersmith and Paddington, that are already well-served by lines.

Above all it suffers from an identity problem - in that it doesn't really have one. It's probably no accident that I left it until last on my tour. I've always treated it as something of minor consequence, for all the reasons given above. The stations it serves exclusively are ones I've never had that much recourse to use. That's not to diminish their respective worth, it's just they suffer from association with a line that, like the Circle, owes its existence to cartography rather than construction engineering.

Bits of it date back to 1863 and were part of the very first Underground service between Paddington and Farringdon. Yet it's only been marked as a separate line on Underground maps for two decades or so. The first version to feature a pink Hammersmith and City Line was published, I think, in 1990. Until then it was officially part of the Metropolitan Line.

I've covered most of this line already: Paddington and Edgware Road; then Baker Street round to Liverpool Street; and finally Aldgate East up to Barking. The one outstanding section, the final piece in the jigsaw, the one bit of London the Hammersmith and City gets all to itself, is from Hammersmith to Royal Oak.

It's a very old section indeed, but also boasts - at the time of writing - the newest station on the entire network.

Tracks were laid here in 1864, when the Metropolitan pushed west from Paddington. For a time you could then travel onwards all the way to Richmond, using a viaduct that linked up to Ravenscourt Part, part of which is supposedly still visible. Nowadays if you want to continue your journey you have to walk from Hammersmith on the pink line to Hammersmith on the purple and green lines, a distance of all of two minutes.

If you were standing equidistant between the two buildings, mulling over which would get you to, say, King's Cross St Pancras the quickest, what would you choose?

Well, there are marginally less stations lying between your embarkation and your destination on the Hammersmith & City (11, compared to the Piccadilly Line's 12) but Piccadilly trains are more frequent. H&C trains are less crowded, but tend to get snarled up in the miasma of interchanges between Paddington and Baker Street. In the summer, H&C trains are cooler and less packed with tourists. They'll also deliver you nearer to your mainline connection at King's Cross. Speed, however, might be the deciding factor. I suspect Piccadilly Line trains are faster, but you'll arrive at your destination flustered and sweating.

I made this journey on what felt like the first night of winter. It was also a day when the media had just started cottoning onto the fact that a recession had begun and they could make money out of hysterical headlines about job losses. Here's Alexander's Barbers at Hammersmith station replete with Obligatory Depictions Of Perfectly Styled Heads plus the Evening Standard at its subtle best:

I sat on a stationary train for 10 minutes. The driver turned up and walked very slowly all the way to the front of the train. Nothing happened for a further three minutes. Finally the train began to crawl away from the platform. I realised that, seeing as how I would be getting off at every single station, taking photos, then waiting for the next service, this would be a very time-consuming journey indeed.

Goldhawk Road was opened a few months before the First World War.

It feels as if it hasn't been properly refurbished since. The platforms on all these H&C stations are desolate, forlorn places. They are all above ground. There are few signs or indicators telling you when the next train will arrive. Instead a disembodied voice tries to reassure you that "an eastbound train has just left Hammersmith" or that "a westbound train will call in xx minutes". On an especially cold and unloved evening, such announcements felt like pointedly small crumbs of comfort.

Shepherd's Bush Market used to be simply Shepherd's Bush until October of last year:

When I was there I noticed several notices inside the station explaining what had happened should any passengers still be confused. It's a cosy, compact building, but I'm not sure why its name wasn't changed long ago to avoid duplication with the Central Line. Instead it had to wait until the opening of the all-new, hugely-spectacular...

Wood Lane. Now this is a station. A glorious one, all told. It's only been open three months, but already people have found stuff to complain about, mostly the fact there aren't any staff selling tickets. But that's nothing compared to the way that, like all stations built in the 1930s or since the late 1990s and unlike every other single station on the Underground, it demands to be looked at. And photographed in a puddle.

A brand new Underground station that commands your attention in such graciously stylised fashion is a wonderful thing to behold. Plus it's opposite the greatest building in the world, BBC Television Centre. Come on Mark Thompson, you can't flog off the place now!

At Latimer Road something happened that was unique to my entire trip around the Underground: a member of the public took issue with me taking a photograph.

This wasn't the first time I'd been accosted; there was that security guard at the Piccadilly Line Hammersmith station. But it was the first time an ordinary punter had come up, asked what I was doing and told me, in a tone that was dangerously close to aggressive, that I better not have taken a photo of themselves. I went into default nerd reaction, pleading a bit pathetically "I'm taking pictures of stations - just stations!" while trying to sound as useless and inoffensive as possible. I don't think he was convinced. He gave me the evil eye and repeated his warning about not wanting his photo taken. A few anxious seconds passed. I wasn't sure what to do. There were loads of people milling around but nobody seemed bothered. Thankfully he suddenly turned away and moved off. I felt stupid for feeling shaken. I'd done nothing wrong - had I? Suffice it to say, said person is not in this photo:

At the next station, Ladbroke Grove, a policeman appeared curious about my activities. What was going on? Why all this sudden interest?

The station has been through numerous name changes and shopkeepers are currently trying to effect another one, so it becomes Portobello Road: a logical move given its closeness to the titular market.

Both Westbourne Park...

...and Royal Oak...

...share tracks with the mainline services in and out of Paddington. They feel even more unwelcoming than their predecessors, shorn of all but the most rudimentary of Hammersmith and City identities. By this point, all Underground trains were packed to bursting. It was the rush hour, but just as many people seemed to be heading into London as out of it.

I trundled into Paddington with my face pressed up against some dirty glass. It certainly felt, in my case, like the end of the line.


Merseytart said...

I'm starting to feel offended at the fact that I haven't been accosted for taking station pics; clearly the public in London are far more paranoid than Merseyside.

I've always had a fondness for the H & C because that section between Paddington and Hammersmith has a serenity about it which you rarely get elsewhere. You can't relax and admire the scenery on the Piccadilly Line. It has a down at heel charm which I think is reflected in the practical names of its stations. But I am personally offended that they didn't call the newest station Television Centre. That's just an amazing station name that they passed up for the pretty bland Wood Lane.

Ian Jones said...

I think I'd have appreciated this line more had it been daylight and had it not been the rush hour. Plus I probably wouldn't have encountered any aggrieved punters. But I'd certainly agree that folk are less suspicious of people with cameras in Liverpool than London. Even though this was the first time anyone had actually spoken of their concern, I've had a fair few quizzical and vaguely intimidating looks.

Mr Thant said...

but also boasts - at the time of writing - the newest station on the entire network.

You needn't worry about this getting out of date. Wood Lane is likely to be the last new station added to the London Underground for a decade or two.

expat said...

Just come across your blog - thank you for all of your work in recording this.

What next? 'End of the line' for London Overground? Or for probably a lifetime's work all London railway lines?